Nation’s Capital Braces For 16 Percent Jump In Homeless Families This Winter

A homeless man rests on a bench in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS
A homeless man rests on a bench in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS

The Washington, D.C., area has been among the most resilient metropolitan economies in the country throughout the Great Recession and gradual recovery, but District officials are bracing for a spike in homelessness this coming winter.

At a Tuesday meeting, the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) approved a plan for how to use its resources over the winter months. The plan projects 840 homeless families will turn to the city for shelter this winter, according to the Washington City Paper, up from 723 in the previous cold season. Despite that 16 percent jump in need, the ICH expects to have just 409 family units available in its shelter network — and “’many or most’…will be occupied” by other families already when the winter starts, according to DCist.

D.C. is the seat of national power and the economic magnet powering one of the wealthiest regional economies in the country. But the city can’t muster the resources to serve its growing homeless population.

The city attempts to relocate families from shelters to longer-term housing. It is far cheaper to simply put a person in a home than to leave them on the street. The hospital and prison costs they are likely to incur come to roughly triple the cost of giving them a house, and when permanent housing is combined with meaningful supportive services, the road back to stability becomes much easier to walk. But that process requires significant resources not only in permanent housing but in the initial, temporary shelter capacity that serves as an intake facility for society’s neediest.

A draft of the plan provided to ThinkProgress by city officials notes that “The District is currently averaging 52 exits from shelter per month” for families, and says that improving that exit rate will be “an important emphasis during the 2014–2015 winter.” Officials had previously told the City Paper that they would move 150 families per month into non-shelter housing during the spring in order to clear out capacity, but that has not happened.

With homeless families far exceeding the city’s capacity last winter and spring, the ICH turned to Maryland motels and city rec centers to house those who couldn’t fit in shelters while awaiting more permanent digs. A judge ruled that the rec center option is illegal, and that about 40 of the family units at the city’s primary shelter weren’t up to the relevant legal standards either. Most of the District’s capacity for housing homeless families is at the large D.C. General shelter, where residents have lodged multiple concerns about health and safety. D.C. General’s shortcomings received media scrutiny last spring after an 8-year-old girl was abducted by a janitor at the shelter. She is still missing.

The resources shortfall for anti-homelessness work in the nation’s capital underscores one of the most alarming aspects of homelessness in America. Despite clear evidence of strategies that work to get people off the street and back onto their feet and large volunteer-driven organizations ready and committed to putting those strategies into action, the funding they need to succeed gets directed elsewhere.